January 14, 2002
Post-9/11 holiday materialism
Gary Laderman is associate professor of religion
The events of Sept. 11 shook American society to its very foundations.
It is still not clear what the psychic, cultural and political fallout
will be in the long run, but three months later, in the midst of the most
sacred season in Americas ritual calendar, the impact is unmistakable.
The shadow of 9/11 looms large, and puts the holiday spirit in a new light.
The carnage from that day and its many consequences have led Americans
to reassess their most fundamental values and consider what ultimately
matters in life.
At first blush, the gift-giving frenzy that can overwhelm American sensory
and cultural circuitry this time of year seems disturbingly disconnected
from these reflections or ultimate concerns and basic values. The haunting,
sorrowful experiences of those families and friends who lost someone on
9/11 only exacerbate our estrangement from the usual rounds of consumptionboth
in the malls and around the dinner tablethat normally mark the end
of one year and the beginning of a new one in American life.
In public gatherings and in private contemplation, most Americans will
turn to religion, and their deepest religious resources to make sense
of these unsettling events and reaffirm the stability, and divinity, of
cosmic order. For some, this reinvigoration of religious consciousness
will lead to open denunciations of the materialism so rampant this time
of year; for others, religious considerations will lead to attenuated
holiday celebrations and increased spiritual discipline away from the
temptations of the market; for still others, religious inspiration will
lead to anonymous donations to favorite charities.
In each of these cases, people tend to identify religion with actions
and ideas outside of the marketplace, away from consumer spending and
gift exchange. Even as we write the check or swipe the credit card, we
consider materialism not just nonspiritual but antispiritual. We typically
associate materialism with hedonism and emptinessour Madonna rather
than the mother of Jesus.
In the wake of 9/11, and during this holiday season, American consumers
conditioned to live in the material world and spend, spend, spend are
wondering a bit more than usual about the meaning of these actions, and
their purpose in the bigger picture.
The president has been steadfast in his pursuit of two objectives: carry
out justice and steer American citizens back to normal. With soldiers
here and abroad doing their jobs, the American public must return to the
markets, as Bush commanded in the days immediately the slaughter, to help
find the way back. The market is where Americans can be normal, where
all share a common and comforting identity: We are consumers and, contrary
to conventional wisdom, consumer culture does not exclude forms of genuine
religious expression and identity.
Indeed, during the past three months, politicians from the president
on down have made it clear that the consumers individual role in
protecting the nation through participation in the marketplace is a sacrosanct
responsibility, a patriotic duty. Democracy, liberty, the pursuit of happinessthese
and other American ideals have been jeopardized by these acts, a challenge
the president met with two of his allies in the war against evil: the
soldier and the consumer.
Before 9/11, we could find normality in a world of commodities, where
the acquisition of DVDs, china, furniture, clothes, cars, jewelry, guns,
sheets and toys fit naturally into American ways of life. The period between
Thanksgiving and the day after New Years has been the bedrock of
the consumer economy, generating the bulk of annual profits for entrepreneurs,
small businesses and major corporations who bank on normal Americans getting
into the holiday spirit and spending money on others as well as themselves.
It is hard to deny that Americans are materialist to the bone. Most of
us consume to indulge bodies, our own and others, buying with physical
appearances, comforts and desires in mind. Historically, America has become
a world powerhouse because of its material possessions and acquisitive
powerstraits that inspire intense feelings of hatred and oppression
in many countries around the world. But American materialist sensibilities
today transcend the purely selfish or the purely sensual.
This holiday season presents an illuminating moment to consider just
how and why gift-giving in the United States is as much about the spirit
as it is about the body. The past 100 days have been dominated by fear
of new attacks and anthrax, the military campaign to get Osama bin Laden,
speeches from the masters of war and personal and collective efforts to
memorialize the dead while work continues at ground zero. Under these
conditions, the customary bombardment of slick, sentimental, joyous holiday
ads promising consumers deeply emotional, if not implicitly religious,
fulfillment through the purchase of this or that product strikes many
as seriously, almost obscenely, inappropriate.
But these very products are the material stuff of everyday life. They
provide Americans with the basic ingredients to creatively make sense
of and bring order to their lives. At this time of year, the primary means
to express human ties of affection, anchor meaningful celebrations of
love and connection and give concrete form to immaterial feelings of trust,
familiarity and appreciation is through the customary practice of gift
exchange, a common and deeply religious ritual that does much more than
redistribute material goods; the spiritual implications of bestowing a
gift on another is a common feature of human societies throughout time
and around the world.
The sacred remains in American festivities that encourage consumers to
exchange gifts during the holiday season, too, a lingering, but unmistakably
holy presence in the midst of rampant materialism, commercialization and
A train set for the kids, a sweater for the son-in-law, a ring for the
wife, a coffee mug for the father, a book for the friendthis is
the stuff middle-class dreams are made of, the material things that matter
most this time of year. They do not matter because of anything inherent
in the matter itself, but in the material capacity to transmit feelings
and reinvigorate significant relationships. The festive atmosphere so
normal this time of year, a celebratory ethos that Americans are trying
to reassert under this haunting shadow of death and human suffering, thrives
when gifts are exchanged, giving concrete expression to the social bonds
that link person to person and that revitalize the overall health and
prosperity of the national spirit.
Continuing public reflection on the meaning and impact of 9/11, and sustained political attention to stimulating a dangerously weak economy, will only reaffirm the very spiritual concerns driving the engine of consumer culture.
This essay first appeared in the Dec. 23 Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is reprinted with permission.
Emory University, Copyright 2002